Florida lawmakers pass insurance bills with $10,000 for home upgrades

Kennith Bogan

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are reviving a 16-year-old state program that could give homeowners up to $10,000 to harden their homes, an attempt, legislators hope, to curb skyrocketing homeowners’ insurance rates.

While the program, known as My Safe Florida Home, could help thousands of homeowners get free home inspections and money to replace their windows, doors and roofs, it’s unlikely to make a significant dent in rapidly rising rate increases for the vast majority of Floridians.

The program’s past iteration was troubled during its two-year stint, and lawmakers this year are giving it 40% less money than they did in 2006, when the state was experiencing another property insurance crisis triggered by a series of hurricanes.

Reviving My Safe Florida Home is part of a slate of legislation lawmakers passed on Wednesday to stabilize Florida’s spiraling property insurance market.

While lawmakers caution the sweeping legislation won’t reduce rates for at least 18 months — if rates drop at all — it includes some short-term measures that could relieve some of the fallout from the crisis:

  • It prohibits insurers from refusing to insure a home with a roof less than 15 years old solely because of the roof’s age. For roofs 15 years or older, the homeowner can request an inspection to get insured. The bill also allows a roof with more than 25% damage to be repaired, instead of being required to be replaced.
  • It creates a new $2 billion fund for reinsurance — insurance that insurers buy — to help some companies stay afloat ahead of storm season. Recipient companies would be required to lower rates.
  • It limits the amount attorneys can collect in lawsuits against insurance companies, which officials say is at least partly to blame for rising rates.

The idea to bring back the My Safe Florida Home program, which existed from 2006 to 2008, received little attention from lawmakers compared to other ideas passed this week.

Related: Florida lawmakers rush to pass property insurance reforms

When, and how, Floridians could start applying for the help is unknown. A spokesperson for Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said it’s his “top priority” to set up the My Safe Florida Home program “as quickly and efficiently as possible” ahead of storm season.

It mimics the basic structure of its previous iteration.

Back in 2006, homeowners could apply for a free home inspection. Those inspectors could then recommend home-hardening upgrades, including replacing shutters, reinforcing garage doors or replacing shingles. Once work was completed, homeowners could then seek discounts from their insurers for the upgrades.

The plan lawmakers are reviving is less expansive than the one passed in 2006, though.

For one, it’s limited to homesteaded homes with an insured value of less than $500,000. That’s the same limit that was originally in place in 2006, but since then, home values have exploded. The median sales price for single-family homes in Miami-Dade County reached $565,000 last month, and $560,000 in Broward County.

The homes also have to be in the state’s wind-borne debris region, a roughly U-shaped region in the southern half of the state, the far northwest Panhandle and some coastal areas.

In 2006, lawmakers assigned $250 million for the program, good for nearly 400,000 home inspections and upgrades on about 32,000 homes.

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This year, lawmakers are assigning $150 million, which would upgrade 11,500 homes at the maximum $10,000 each. ($35 million goes to inspections, education campaigns and administrative costs.)

However, eligible homeowners stand to benefit more from this year’s program. In 2006, every dollar the homeowner spent on upgrades was matched by a state grant of up to $5,000. This year, they could receive $2 from the state for every $1 they spend, up to $10,000.

How successful the previous program was is questionable. It was marred by scandals that contributed to lawmakers’ decision not to keep funding it. The state fired the company it hired to conduct inspections. Homeowners, who signed up in droves and were placed on a long waiting list, were sometimes shortchanged on their bills. Some of the inspectors were considered fraudulent.

A 2009 outside analysis, however, recommended the program continue. It was “beneficial to all stakeholders” and saved $1.50 for every $1 in grants, it concluded.

Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, an insurance agent and the sponsor of the Senate’s bill, said he was aware of the program’s history, but said it could lead to real savings for some people.

“We’ll be watching it very closely to make sure the right things are being done,” he said. “I think everything helps.”

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